Giovanni’s Island (Cert PG)
1 Disc DVD/BD (Distributor: All The Anime) Running time: 102 minutes approx.
It must be tough for a Japanese animation company to put as film when, especially on this side of the world, their work is automatically going to incur comparisons to the mighty Studio Ghibli. In the case of Giovanni’s Island it’s setting in the years post World War II and its often sombre and tragic events will see it likened to Isao Takahata’s heartbreaking classic Grave Of The Fireflies.
The story begins in modern times as a group of elderly people arrive on a small island of Shikotan and one in particular is struck by the memories of the past. We leap back to 1945 and the Japanese have surrendered in the wake of Hiroshima thus ending their war campaign. Being tucked away on a small island the residents were able to live a fairly peaceful and undisturbed life, including the children like brothers Junpei and Kanto Senou who are having the time of their life.
Unfortunately this serenity is about to be disrupted when Russian soldiers appear and declare it under their jurisdiction. The families are all forced to have their houses sectioned off, in favour of the Russians of course; The Senous now live in their barn while the Russian commander and his family take over the house. The initial hostilities ebb away when Junpei befriends the commander’s daughter Tanya, despite the language barrier. But their life is thrown into turmoil when the boys’ father is arrested by the Russian army and they themselves are transported away to an internment camp.
Not completely as depressing Grave Of The Fireflies but it gives it a good run for its money late in the second act as the young lads embark on a tumultuous journey to find their father, experiencing some the of atrocities of war which had previously eluded them. This irony of the hardships happening to the islanders after the war rather than during it makes for a unique twist but that is not the only one to be found in Shigemichi Sugita’s poignant tale.
It seems while the adults are busy butting the heads it is the kids who find a way to enjoy a peaceful relationship, reminding us of the power of the innocence of children. Similarly it is the Senou family obsession with trains and in particular the novel Night On The Galactic Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa, which the boys and their father read from religiously every day. It is a recurring theme of the film and the fantasy train ride of the novel is a symbol of escape and hope for the two youngsters, while adding an extra dimension to the visual aspect of the film.
For the first half of the film things are rather light hearted, even with the Russian occupancy causing much upheaval. One of the more amusing and endearing moments comes when the Russians take over half the school and their singing through the thin wooden walls interrupts the Japanese classes, so the kids start to sign louder in an act of defiance and the Russians respond in kind! The next time this happens the two classes end up singing the same song but in their own languages and thus the barriers begin to fall.
Sugita takes the rather balanced approach of not portraying the Russians as the enemy or in a particularly villainous light, outside of a few gruff soldiers. We can read much into this move, largely due to how the Japanese have often been quick to play down their own culpability in committing atrocities during the war in films to the disdain and ire of their suffering nations. Perhaps this was a deliberate attempt to appease everyone by not taking sides or risking further upset but it makes for a refreshing change for someone to take the perspective of war being the main villain and not the people drawn into its pernicious clutches.
The relationship between the two Japanese boys and the Russian Tanya is a central but not dominant facet of the story, successful forming and enriching all their lives with this friendship despite the inability to understand each other’s languages. Furthering the homage to Kenji Miyazawa’s novel Junpei and Kanta decide to tell Tanya their names are Giovanni and Campanella after the two main protagonists of the novel, hence this film’s title.
It might come as a surprise to many to learn that the esteemed Production IG are behind the animation looking at the imagery, which is something of a departure from the like of their seminal Ghost In The Shell. But don’t take that as a sign that this is bad, just different. The characters are roughly drawn and often slip off model while the backdrops occasionally look like they’ve been knocked up with watercolours in five minutes – but it has a rough charm about which actually suits this film quite comfortably. In contrast the fantasy scenes involving the magical train are full of sparkling splendour and a vibrant energy to lift us from the gloom of the later set pieces.
Also needing to be noted is how the dialogue is split between Japanese and Russian instead of everyone speaking in Japanese, a rare occurrence in anime but a welcome one, adding much verisimilitude and authenticity to the multi-cultural flavour of the tale. Worthy of special mention are the two voice actors of Junpei and Kanta, Kōta Yokoyama and Junya Taniai respectively, deliver two fine and emotional performances which will tear into your soul during the heavy dramatic scenes.
Touching on many emotions and carrying a deep but accessible message about cultural relationships, the power of childish innocence, the sins of our fathers and the cherishing of memories, Giovanni’s Island ticks all the right boxes for delivering a affecting slice of heartbreaking drama. Its deftly executed combination of fantasy and gritty realism ensures a wide appeal while reminding us there is a healthy film industry outside of Studio Ghibli.
English Language 2.0 & 5.1
Japanese Language 2.0
Interview with Polina Ilyushenko (Tanya)
Rating – ****
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